From the gritty streets of Willets Point to the emerging revitalized Long Island City waterfront, the city’s Economic Development Corp.— for better or worse — is changing the landscape of Queens.
In a rare move, the agency reached out to the Queens Chronicle asking that its president, Seth Pinsky, give an update on Willets Point. During an hour-long interview, Pinsky, 40, who has served as head of the EDC for four years, defended the city’s actions in the Iron Triangle and also touched on other EDC projects in the borough.
“The latest Willets Point project is a real win for Queens and the city,” he said. “It will provide lots of jobs and provide a retail and entertainment complex with permanent jobs in the Corona and Elmhurst neighborhoods.”
In June, the mayor confirmed the latest plans for the rundown area. The Related Companies and Sterling Equities, the real estate firm controlled by the owners of the Mets, will develop 23 acres of Phase 1.
Work will first begin to transform 126th Street, across the street from Citi Field, into an area with a hotel, retail and restaurant space and an interim 20-acre surface parking area that can be converted to recreational use when the Mets are not playing at home.
Then, if all goes as planned, developers will build Willets West on 2,500 parking spaces in the Citi Field parking lot and turn it into a one million square-foot mall with a parking structure and additional surface parking. But many in the Flushing community question the legality of erecting a commercial entity on public parkland since the stadium and parking lot are in Flushing Meadows Park.
Pinsky said a 1961 agreement with the Mets, called Administrative Code 18-118, has been carefully studied by the city’s Law Department. “We are confident it’s legal,” he said.
But other attorneys have looked at the code, which gives the Mets far-reaching discretion on the property, and say a shopping center is illegal. Michael Rikon, a lawyer for Willets Point United, the group of landowners who do not want to leave, says such a change in usage needs to be approved by both the City Council and the state Legislature. “It is one thing to use parkland for a baseball field and related parking and quite another to use parkland for mega retail. It is absolutely prohibited,” Rikon said.
Although it has been reported that the City Council has to approve the new plan, Pinsky said only a small portion will be up for review. “The new plan is in conformity with the plan adopted in 2008,” he said. “We only need to go back to the council for the interim parking use at the Willets Point site.”
Also, an environmental impact and traffic study will need to be made, with Pinsky estimating the project can begin construction in one and one-half years. He indicated that egress from the planned parking garage will be onto Roosevelt Avenue or Northern Boulevard and that proposed ramps on the Van Wyck Expressway, expected to be built in 2020 or 2021, will help ease traffic. “It’s up to the developers to analyze the situation,” he added.
Phase 1 work will end with more construction in Willets Point, including a hotel, retail space and housing projected for 2025.
Gene Kelty, chairman of Community Board 7, has questioned the fairness of the bidding for the other three developers who were in the running for the Willets Point contract. Kelty believes they were in a less favorable position than the winner and could not compete with the shopping center plan on the Mets parking lot.
Pinsky retorted that those bidding could have offered another site for the shopping center, though admitting he knew of no such location, and that the other developers could have requested a partnership with Sterling Equities. “They knew they could think about that,” he said. “It doesn’t make the process unfair.”
Earlier this month, the state attorney general issued what was widely seen as a slap on the wrist to the EDC and the Flushing-Willets Point-Corona Local Development Corp. for illegally lobbying for the Willets Point project. Pinsky said his group accepted responsibility for what the attorney general found but downplayed it, calling the violation a loophole and a grey area of the law that was never previously enforced.
As a result, the EDC is restructuring into a new nonprofit entity, but will keep its name and staff, allowing it to advocate for projects. Another entity, the NYC Land Development Corp., will have the ability to purchase and dispose of land from the city.
The WPU is claiming that the illegal lobbying should nullify the 2008 council approval. Pinsky disagrees: “There is no legal merit. The project is moving forward and we’ve addressed the remedies of the Attorney General’s Office. I am confident the 2008 land use review process will stand.”
He said the city has reached agreements with about 95 percent of the Willets Point landowners, with four still left. “We are in discussions with several of them and hope we won’t have to use eminent domain,” Pinsky added.
On other topics, the EDC president offered the following comments:
Flushing Airport “is a challenging site” because of the ground conditions at the former airport. The 26-acre site in College Point consists partially of wetlands and even recreational uses would be difficult to implement. “There are no imminent plans for its use,” Pinsky said. “There is nothing new.”
Flushing Commons, approved in 2010, has yet to see a shovel in the ground at Municipal Parking Lot 1 due to financing problems. Plans call for an $850 million mixed-use development to replace the parking area in downtown Flushing. TDC President Michael Meyer, who is developing the project, hopes to break ground by the middle of next year. Pinsky said the developer is making good progress and believes work will start before the one-year deadline.
Downtown Jamaica is undergoing infrastructure improvements and there is a request for proposals for a site across from the AirTrain station. “There is some talk of a hotel there,” Pinsky said. “We are also working on the vacancy problem on second- and third- floor buildings on Jamaica Avenue and empty stores on side streets.”
Long Island City’s waterfront is undergoing a renaissance with the addition of Hunters Point South, a 5,000-unit housing development. It will include two new schools and a park. “The first phase of 900 units will start this year,” Pinsky said. He is also excited about the increased ferry service to LIC: “It’s been very successful and we’re looking at other additional locations.”